Perfection and the Idea of Moral Progress in Information Ethics

David Sanford Horner


The simple fact that most of us without doubt lead less than perfect moral lives does not entail that most people may not progress morally. The idea of moral progress must be central to an area of applied ethics such as Information Ethics. The purpose of this paper is to compare and contrast two models of ethical reasoning, and their implications, in an attempt to illuminate how ethical behaviour might be viewed and promoted.The first model, ‘the synoptic model’, I argue is a generally dominant model drawing,as it does, on a kind of post-Wittgensteinian moral psychology which is both rationalist and behaviourist. I take as a token of this way of thinking about ethical reasoning that presented by Mason, Mason and Culnan in their book ‘Ethics in Information Management’ (1995). They argue that ethical thinking may be defined ‘as the systematic examination of ethical issues at a “moment of truth” to determine whether an agent’s actual or contemplated behaviour is ethical or unethical or whether alternatively, there are no ethical considerations involved’. Their ethical persons or moral agents move through a set of stages which include: the recognition of a moment of truth in response to an ethical issue; reflection upon the situation; anticipation of the ethical consequences of their actions; and finally the making of an ethically defensible judgement. Implict in this model is the public nature of these procedures or at least the parasitism of the inner on the outer. (‘Reasons are public reasons, rules are public rules’.) I argue there are three types of objections we can have to such a synoptic model. Firstly, empirical objections – people are just not essentially or necessarily like that; secondly, objections of a philosophical nature – the underpinning arguments are not cogent or convincing; thirdly, may be it is just the case that people ought not to picture themselves in this way.

To this synoptic model of moral decision making I contrast a model which seems more cogent and persuasive derived from the moral philosophy of the late Iris Murdoch and developed in works such as ‘The Sovereignty of the Good’ (1970) and ‘Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals’ (1992). This alternative model I will call ‘incremental’. Murdoch argues that a person’s moral life is something which goes on continually and is tied up with small, everyday happenings as much as with moments of big decision. Our moral life is not something which is switched off between the happenings of explicit moral choices or ‘moments of truth’. This, of course , is not to suggest that we do not make moral decisions but simply to argue that most of the work is done by the time the decision is made! For Murdoch the relevant metaphor here is that of vision (rather than a movement through stages). We can only choose within the world we see in the ethical sense of ‘see’. This implies according th Murdoch that clear vision arises as a result of moral imagination and moral effort. (One of the important advantages of this conception is that it once more opens a route for moral imagination.) Central to her argument then is the concept of ‘attention’ in which the work of attention imperceptibly creates structures of value around us; ‘where virtue is concerned we often apprehend more than we clearly understand and grow by lookig’. She characterised her own position as that of a kind of ‘non-dogmatic naturalism’ in the sense that goodness is connected with knowledge in a common-sense way. Knowledge becomes a refined and honest perception of what really is the case and developed through ‘patient and just decernment’. The implication is that moral change and moral progress are slow and, as with Kant, there is a recognition here that we constantly wrestle with our inclinations and desires. We are not simply free in some existentialist sense suddently to alter the way we see things. In contrast to the synoptic model explicit moral choice now seems less important and less decisive ‘since much of the decision lies elsewhere’. I argue that the relative veracity of these models is important in our understanding, for example, of the role of moral education or of professional codes of ethics.